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What I’ve learned about leadership a year on from lockdown

By Chris Freeland |



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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March 10, 2021 | 5 min read

What a year. Like pretty much everyone on the planet, March 2020 turned our lives upside down. At Rapp, not only did we have to navigate the impact of Covid-19 on our business, our clients and our people, but we were also going through a merger which saw Proximity become part of Rapp.

work from home

Anyone who has been through the M&A process will tell you that even in normal circumstances the year would have been challenging. But then we had the added uncertainty and the start of 12 months of living hand to mouth. However over the past year, I’ve learned a great deal about myself, my priorities, what makes me do my best work.

I can’t wait to get back in the workplace

In my view, reports of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, there have been advantages of being forced to work from home five days a week for 12 months. I’m probably far more productive and effective now than I ever was in the office environment. However, work is about human beings and I miss being with people: debating stuff, throwing ideas around and just simply catching up in the moment.

Of course, most people will continue to want, or will expect, greater flexibility to work from home. But for me, it’s about having the option to plan my week around the ability to collaborate face to face with clients and colleagues when needed. I have always been and will continue to be a people person, they give me energy and I work better as part of a well-functioning team.

Everything I have ever learned about leadership was tested in 2020

I’ve certainly grown as a leader in the past year by learning (fast) to lead through times of crisis and under the most exceptional of circumstances. Everything I ever read or learned on my leadership journey has come into its own and sometimes, I had to dig very deep to keep my head above water when all around me others were struggling.

Three things kept my leadership on track

Alongside my own resilience, and calm demeanour, the other source of inspiration that helped keep me on track, is the historian, Harvard professor, and Omnicom University’s Nancy Koehn. She’s run a number of webinars focusing specifically on leading through crisis and the sessions provided much-needed reassurance through some very gloomy moments.

I learned that it’s OK not to have all the answers

When you’re leading through extreme uncertainty and volatility, it’s fine to admit that you don’t know something.

Provide credible, tangible hope

This goes a long way when it comes to riding the storm. And you need to be as honest and as transparent as possible.

I have an incredible team

We have all been on this journey together and all have our own lived experiences – some of which have made us better people, others that have challenged us to the extreme.

You must look after yourself

The cliche of ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ has never been more pertinent to long term survival. Exercise is one of the best forms of recovery. In fact, it’s been my salvation. Dive into any forum or book or resources that tackle mental wellbeing – we all need help here even to keep us in check. Above all, take each day as it comes and take time out to recharge when you need it. None of us is superhuman and our teams are not expecting us to be so.

Finally, I believe we will all come out of this as different people

We’ll be more humble, more empathetic and certainly more appreciative of what we have than ever before.

Chris Freeland, executive chairman, RAPP UK

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RAPP is a global, data-driven creative community that builds direct, meaningful and high-value relationships between brands and people. At RAPP, with our unrivalled depth of expertise in first-party data, we’ve been observing and cataloguing real people’s lives for 50 years. In today’s world the balance of power has shifted, and customers are in control, which is why we put people and their preferences at the heart of the brand experience. With a talent base of more than 1,600 professionals in 18 offices, we help brands grow the value of real people by understanding what really matters and creating experiences that are right for real people, with real needs, in real time, creating marketing that matters. Our expertise in data and marketing sciences allows us to deliver our clients actionable human insight - an incredible understanding of genuine motivations, observed transactions and actual interactions. Our process reflects how real people think; we balance the left brain and the right, and we do our best work when we bring Precision and Empathy into balance. Building on our data foundation, RAPP delivers a range of capability across social, digital, customer experience and technology.

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